All Margaret Keane wanted to do was paint. She escaped her horrible first marriage to feel some of the freedom her muse mandated. Unfortunately, the 1950s wasn’t a very welcoming place for a single divorcee, so she fell in with another shady character, a supposed artist named Walter. Together, they more or less created pop art, using Margaret’s images of doe-eyed children in sad states and Walter’s salesmanship and marketing savvy to create an enormous empire. The only problem? No one knew Margaret was solely responsible for the images. Walter took credit for everything, leading to dissent in their marriage, and an eventual day in court.
Tim Burton’s terrific Big Eyes tells the tale of Margaret (an absolutely amazing Amy Adams) and Walter (Christoph Waltz, all smarm and smugness). It shows her leaving her first husband in a blind panic, settling in San Francisco and hanging out with her friend DeAnn (Krysten Ritter) and trying to sell her work. Eventually finding employment in a furniture factory (painting cribs), she meets Walter at a local jazz spot, and the two hit it off almost immediately. He is particularly enamored of her “big eye” paintings, and tries to convince the club owner (Jon Polito) to let him show them there. When someone mistakes Walter for the artist, he goes with it to make the sale. It’s not long, however, before an accomplice at the local paper (Danny Huston) is planting stories about “his” work, leaving Margaret to suffer in suburban housewife silence.
The rest of the movie illustrates how the ruse unravels, how Walter turns Margaret into a major moneymaking cottage industry and then loses it all when the sweatshop-like way he treats her inspires her to stand up for herself. Filtered through Burton’s eccentric outsider persona, it’s all bop and circumstance, Danny Elfman’s vibe-inspired score keeping everything lively and peppy. There is a lot of humor here, but within the camp and kitsch there’s a lot of heartache as well. Adams, mousy and miserable, is so good at playing the role of put-upon wife that we almost miss the magic in her fingers. Granted, in 2014, her work is nostalgic nonsense, but back in her day, she was seen as something of a visionary. Waltz has a wonderful scene where he tries to describe his “interpretation” of her work and it’s so over the top and melodramatic that you can’t tell if he’s serious, or just shilling.
This is really nothing more than a two person character study, ancillary individuals tossed in to move the plot along or comment on the clash of attitudes. After Margaret leaves and finds religion via the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is a court case involving the truth behind who actually painting the pictures. Without a lawyer, Walter represents himself and the whole sequence is absolutely hilarious. Not only that, each small victory (leading up to the definitive denouement) allows Margaret to become more and more confident. At the start of the movie, she’s meek and frightened. By the end, she’s no superwoman, but she’s no doormat either.
Burton does a brilliant job of showing all sides of the story. He doesn’t sympathize just with Margaret (there’s a terrific moment where her fame “reveals” itself in everyone she sees suddenly taking on the likeness of her “big eyed” subjects) but he defends Walter as well. One can easily argue that, without his ingenious decisions in how to get the images to the masses, we’d never have heard of the Keanes or their still enduring efforts. There’s also a refreshing lack of pretense and idiosyncrasy here. Burton pulls back on his traditional Goth goofiness to give these characters and their story the respect they deserve.
The Keane craze reached its peak in the late ’60s, with several companies creating knock-offs like the Pity Puppy/Pity Kitty line of large eyed animal portraits. Before that, Margaret and Walter Keane were seen as hipster icons. Now, they’re simply part of one of 2014’s most enjoyable entertainments.